Despite her promise to leave the country if Donald Trump won the presidency, Lena Dunham has decided to stick around. In a pre-election interview with Fox & Friends, Trump called Dunham a “B-Actor” bereft of “mojo” and opined that the exodus of Dunham and other folks solemnly vowing to leave if he triumphed would be “a great thing for our country.” I’m inclined to agree, because whether she’s agitating for Hillary Clinton or waxing on about millennial ennui, Dunham never does much more than purvey outrage and anxiety disguised as commentary and political activism.
Two years ago in Vogue, Dunham wrote that she inherited from her mother the belief that “the freedom to decide what you want to do with your life, how you want to be perceived and treated, to dress and act and engage the world in whatever way feels most natural, safe, and kind to you—was not a privilege but a right.” While few would be troubled by a belief in the right to act freely, especially when such actions affect only oneself, most would take issue with a belief in a legal right to be “perceived and treated” in “whatever way feels most natural, safe, and kind.” This position, which is the basis of much of Dunham’s political activism, is indefensible.
A country couldn’t function if people were legally compelled to “perceive and treat” their neighbors in whatever fashion their neighbors felt best. Not only would it be agonizing for every individual to try to guess constantly others’ shifting thoughts and moods, but it would also be virtually impossible to legally enforce. This shouldn’t be surprising. Dunham’s position on rights doesn’t seem to take much inspiration from canonical rights theorists like John Locke, Thomas Paine, or Robert Nozick—all of whom concern themselves with rights based on factors like the necessary conditions of a healthy society, or the nature of the human condition—but is instead derived from a deeply held passion to see her innermost wants reified.
Here are a few excerpts from her anguished post-election essay published on her website: “We wanted a female president,” and “We wanted equal pay,” and “It is painful on a cellular level knowing those men got what they wanted.” There are arguments worth listening to about gender discrimination and problems arising from electoral demographics, but Dunham doesn’t make them. Instead, she preaches a creed of envy and self-righteous scorn. She writes, “we have all been radicalized. It’s no longer a word for those living on the fringes. It’s a word for everyone who walks in pain…and therefore we’ve been deputized to do our parts.” This is the most dangerous aspect of Dunham’s political activism. She’s not content with advocating for change on the basis of her own preferences –– she’d like her legions of fans to follow suit.
After a few months of avoiding political activity, Dunham returned last week to stump for Jim Johnson, a Democratic New Jersey gubernatorial candidate. In her endorsement video, Dunham once again invoked rights when she said of Johnson, “He has made his reputation on being a just man who is invested in the rights of every single American.” Similarly, in an Instagram post made earlier this week, Dunham endorsed Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour party in the UK, in the upcoming general election, calling him a “a fair and just leader.” Facially, these seem like wholesome endorsements, until they’re put under the light of Dunham’s nebulous conception of rights and justice. But wording aside, Dunham’s return to political activism is worth watching vigilantly.
Dunham isn’t a rabble-rouser agitating on an obscure blog, she’s an authentic celebrity. Her just-ended HBO show, Girls, was widely popular and critically acclaimed, lasting six seasons, and her last collection of essays reached number two on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s important to pay attention to her political activity, because in a democracy the attention of the people is the fuel of change. If that weren’t the case, neither Clinton’s campaign nor Planned Parenthood would have bothered to work with her. Likewise, after she uploaded her video touting Johnson’s candidacy, he was quick to publicly thank her, because as every adept politician knows, a celebrity’s endorsement is usually more valuable than anyone else’s.
A figure that advocates for change based on anxiety and outrage—and that conceptualizes rights as based on individual feeling—is dangerous. It would be easy to lay blame for the popularity of entitlement politics on Dunham, but that wouldn’t be fair. She’s a useful political advocate solely because a large swath of the American public finds her message seductive. If we want Americans to ignore Dunham, we must strengthen institutions and defend thinkers who will prioritize the health of society and the liberty of individuals.
Michael Shindler is an Advocate with Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter here.